Students petition for online learning in Spring 2022, others call for hybrid model

Petitions cite Omicron variant and spark protests

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A student looking worriedly at their laptop
Krystal Chan / The Peak

By: Yelin Gemma Lee, News Writer

An anonymous group of SFU students have started a petition on Change.org campaigning for online learning to continue for the remainder of the Spring 2022 term. As of January 20, the petition has gained over 4,000 signatures out of its goal of 5,000. The organizers cite the rise in Omicron cases and lack of student choice as the main reason for starting this petition.

The petition letter reads, “Due to the severity of the pandemic, the decision that Simon Fraser University (SFU) has made in forcing students back to school in-person, not giving them a choice, and disregarding their discomfort towards in-person education is not an ethical choice.”

Following the petition, on January 20, a student group announced a campus walkout in protest of in-person learning. The walkout will take place on January 24. 

The Peak spoke to Michelle Zheng, spokesperson of the petition group. “We commit to request SFU to reserve remote access to most courses for all the students [ . . . ] We respect everyone’s freedom. But we do not allow the authorities to trespass our freedom from suffering from COVID-19’s danger of health and safety.”

This petition is in response to the SFU administration’s decision to return to in-person learning and teaching following the two-week online learning period at the beginning of the semester. On January 11, vice-president academic and provost Catherine Dauvergne sent out an announcement confirming in-person learning and teaching will resume on January 24. Dauvergne said this decision was based on consultations with the public health authorities and in the best interest of students’ mental health. On January 12, UBC announced they would extend remote learning for “the majority of programs” until February 7. 

SFU student Dilraj Nijjar started a counter petition on January 17 to voice the concerns of students who prefer in-person classes. Nijjar said to The Peak the purpose of this petition is not to ask for a forced return to in-person classes, but rather to keep in-person classes as an option. “We are also concerned about the new variant, but given that majority of us are vaccinated [and] have boosters, our mental health and other factors take precedence in this debate,” said Nijjar. 

According to a data tracker by Global News, 83% of BC’s population aged five and above are fully vaccinated with two shots of the vaccine and 36% are administered a booster shot. 

The Peak reached out to Dauvergne for a statement. 

Dauvergne stated the safety plan is still in place to protect students, as well as “completed extensive work on ventilation systems.” Dauvergne cited the importance of in-person classes and the impact of the pandemic on students’ mental health as reasons to return to campus. “There are a wide range of opinions and preferences for what this term should look like, but we have heard from many students that they are excited to return to in-person study.”

The report also recommended further actions for post-secondary institutions to help relieve students’ concerns amidst the pandemic. It calls for a tuition freeze along with an expansion of mental health resources available to young adults, among many other recommendations. 

Regarding the petition to move the semester online, Dauvergne said its validity was in question as administration was notified of people listed on this petition that did not sign it. Additionally, there have been comments on social media noting concerns of false signatures (such as those of retired faculty) on the petition. Zheng addressed the petition’s credibility in her interview. “I have to first apologize to everyone whose signatures appeared on the list of our petition sent to the authorities without their consent [ . . . ] We have not expected that there were students who input others’ signatures without consent, and we condemn such irresponsible practice.” Zheng said the website hosting the petition has an anonymous setting and the organizers were unable to control fraudulent signatures.

The group has now changed its approach to petition. They encourage students to send emails from their own SFU account to the school’s COVID-19 response team. Zheng said this solution will ensure “no room for anyone who should falsify other’s signatures.”

The Peak spoke to Hannah McGregor, SFU publishing assistant professor and graduate program chair who is offering flexible hybrid course options for her students. These include relaxed deadlines and grading schemes, as well as giving students the choice to access the seminars online or in-person starting January 24. 

McGregor was not surprised by the petition and said everyone at SFU needs compassion and flexibility right now. “Unfortunately, compassion and flexibility don’t work very well within institutional structures, which are often more concerned with budget lines, legal liability, provincial regulations, and labour issues,” said McGregor. “As I understand: the university can’t stay online without the province’s say-so, and the province has evidence-based reason to believe that it is better at a population level for universities to be open and operating face-to-face. 

It’s a difficult situation across the board, one that I don’t think would be solved by a unilateral decision for SFU to stay online but that I do think will benefit from ongoing student agitation for greater flexibility at an institutional level.”

This is a developing story that The Peak may cover in future pieces.

Updates and current expectations on SFU’s return to campus can be found on their website. The petition for remote learning and in-person learning in the Spring 2022 term can both be found on Change.org.